Robert Burn biography robert Burn and His poetry chapter II. The Motherland in Robert Burn works

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CHAPTER I. Robert Burn

    1. Robert Burn biography

Robert Burns was born in 1759, in Alloway, Scotland, to William and Agnes Brown Burnes. Like his father, also known familiarly as Rabbie Burns,[a] was a Scottish poet and lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland and is celebrated worldwide. He is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is in a "light Scots dialect" of English, accessible to an audience beyond Scotland. He also wrote in standard English, and in these writings his political or civil commentary is often at its bluntest.

He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, and after his death he became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism, and a cultural icon in Scotland and among the Scottish diaspora around the world. Celebration of his life and work became almost a national charismatic cult during the 19th and 20th centuries, and his influence has long been strong on Scottish literature. In 2009 he was chosen as the greatest Scot by the Scottish public in a vote run by Scottish television channel STV.

As well as making original compositions, Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) "Auld Lang Syne" is often sung at Hogmanay (the last day of the year), and "Scots Wha Hae" served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. Other poems and songs of Burns that remain well known across the world today include "A Red, Red Rose", "A Man's a Man for A' That", "To a Louse", "To a Mouse", "The Battle of Sherramuir", "Tam o' Shanter" and "Ae Fond Kiss".

Burns was born two miles (3 km) south of Ayr, in Alloway, the eldest of the seven children of William Burnes (1721–1784), a self-educated tenant farmer from Dunnottar in the Mearns, and Agnes Broun (1732–1820), the daughter of a Kirkoswald tenant farmer. He was born in a house built by his father (now the Burns Cottage Museum), where he lived until Easter 1766, when he was seven years old. William Burnes sold the house and took the tenancy of the 70-acre (280,000 m2) Mount Oliphant farm, southeast of Alloway. Here Burns grew up in poverty and hardship, and the severe manual labour of the farm left its traces in a premature stoop and a weakened constitution.

He had little regular schooling and got much of his education from his father, who taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history and also wrote for them A Manual of Christian Belief. He was also taught by John Murdoch (1747–1824), who opened an "adventure school" in Alloway in 1763 and taught Latin, French, and mathematics to both Robert and his brother Gilbert (1760–1827) from 1765 to 1768 until Murdoch left the parish. After a few years of home education, Burns was sent to Dalrymple Parish School in mid-1772 before returning at harvest time to full-time farm labouring until 1773, when he was sent to lodge with Murdoch for three weeks to study grammar, French, and Latin.

By the age of 15, Burns was the principal labourer at Mount Oliphant. During the harvest of 1774, he was assisted by Nelly Kilpatrick (1759–1820), who inspired his first attempt at poetry, "O, Once I Lov'd A Bonnie Lass". In 1775, he was sent to finish his education with a tutor at Kirkoswald, where he met Peggy Thompson (born 1762), to whom he wrote two songs, "Now Westlin' Winds" and "I Dream'd I Lay". Despite his ability and character, William Burnes was consistently unfortunate, and migrated with his large family from farm to farm without ever being able to improve his circumstances.[6] At Whitsun, 1777, he removed his large family from the unfavourable conditions of Mount Oliphant to the 130-acre (0.53 km2) farm at Lochlea, near Tarbolton, where they stayed until William Burnes's death in 1784. Subsequently, the family became integrated into the community of Tarbolton. To his father's disapproval, Robert joined a country dancing school in 1779 and, with Gilbert, formed the Tarbolton Bachelors' Club the following year. His earliest existing letters date from this time, when he began making romantic overtures to Alison Begbie (b. 1762). In spite of four songs written for her and a suggestion that he was willing to marry her, she rejected him. Robert Burns was initiated into the Masonic lodge St David, Tarbolton, on 4 July 1781, when he was 22.

In December 1781, Burns moved temporarily to Irvine to learn to become a flax-dresser, but during the workers' celebrations for New Year 1781/1782 (which included Burns as a participant) the flax shop caught fire and was burnt to the ground. This venture accordingly came to an end, and Burns went home to Lochlea farm. During this time he met and befriended Captain Richard Brown who encouraged him to become a poet. He continued to write poems and songs and began a commonplace book in 1783, while his father fought a legal dispute with his landlord. The case went to the Court of Session, and Burnes was upheld in January 1784, a fortnight before he died.

His first child, Elizabeth "Bess" Burns (1785–1817), was born to his mother's servant, Elizabeth Paton (1760–circa 1799), while he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour, who became pregnant with twins in March 1786. Burns signed a paper attesting his marriage to Jean, but her father "was in the greatest distress, and fainted away". To avoid disgrace, her parents sent her to live with her uncle in Paisley. Although Armour's father initially forbade it, they were married in 1788. Armour bore him nine children, three of whom survived infancy.

Burns was in financial difficulties due to his lack of success in farming, and to make enough money to support a family he took up an offer of work in Jamaica from Patrick Douglas of Garrallan, Old Cumnock, whose sugar plantations outside Port Antonio were managed by his brother Charles, under whom Burns was to be a "book keeper" (assistant overseer of slaves). It has been suggested that the position was for a single man, and that he would live in rustic conditions, not likely to be living in the great house at a salary of £30 per annum. It is said in Burns's defence that in 1786 the abolitionist movement was just beginning to be broadly active. Burns's authorship of "The Slave's Lament" (1792), a work claimed to typify his egalitarian views, is disputed. Burns’s name is absent from any abolition petition and according to Lisa Williams "is strangely silent on the question of chattel slavery compared to other contemporary poets. Perhaps this was due to his government position, severe limitations on free speech at the time or his association with beneficiaries of the slave trade system".

At about the same time, Burns fell in love with Mary Campbell (1763–1786), whom he had seen in church while he was still living in Tarbolton. She was born near Dunoon and had lived in Campbeltown before moving to work in Ayrshire. He dedicated the poems "The Highland Lassie O", "Highland Mary", and "To Mary in Heaven" to her. His song "Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary, And leave auld Scotia's shore?" suggests that they planned to emigrate to Jamaica together. Their relationship has been the subject of much conjecture, and it has been suggested that on 14 May 1786 they exchanged Bibles and plighted their troth over the Water of Fail in a traditional form of marriage. Soon afterwards Mary Campbell left her work in Ayrshire, went to the seaport of Greenock, and sailed home to her parents in Campbeltown. In October 1786, Mary and her father sailed from Campbeltown to visit her brother in Greenock. Her brother fell ill with typhus, which she also caught while nursing him. She died of typhus on 20 or 21 October 1786 and was buried there.

    1. Robert Burn and his poetry

Burns was a tenant farmer. However, toward the end of his life he became an excise collector in Dumfries, where he died in 1796; throughout his life he was also a practicing poet. His poetry recorded and celebrated aspects of farm life, regional experience, traditional culture, class culture and distinctions, and religious practice. He is considered the national poet of Scotland. Although he did not set out to achieve that designation, he clearly and repeatedly expressed his wish to be called a Scots bard, to extol his native land in poetry and song, as he does in “The Answer”:

Ev’n thena wish (I mind its power)

A wish, that to my latest hour
Shall strongly heave my breast;
That I for poor auld Scotland’s sake
Some useful plan, or book could make,
Or sing a sang at least.
And perhaps he had an intimation that his “wish” had some basis in reality when he described his Edinburgh reception in a letter of December 7, 1786 to his friend Gavin Hamilton: “I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas a Kempis or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin’s and Aberdeen Almanacks and by all probability I shall soon be the tenth Worthy, and the eighth Wise Man, of the world.” That he is considered Scotland’s national poet today owes much to his position as the culmination of the Scottish literary tradition, a tradition stretching back to the court makars, to Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, to the 17th-century vernacular writers from James VI of Scotland to William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, to early 18th-century forerunners such as Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. Burns is often seen as the end of that literary line both because his brilliance and achievement could not be equaled and, more particularly, because the Scots vernacular in which he wrote some of his celebrated works was—even as he used it—becoming less and less intelligible to the majority of readers, who were already well-versed with English culture and language. The shift toward English cultural and linguistic hegemony had begun in 1603 with the Union of the Crowns when James VI of Scotland became James I of Great Britain; it had continued in 1707 with the merging of the Scottish and English Parliaments in London; and it was virtually a fait accompli by Burns’s day save for pockets of regional culture and dialect. Thus, one might say that Burns remains the national poet of Scotland because Scottish literature ceased with him, thereafter yielding poetry in English or in Anglo-Scots or in imitations of Burns.

The Scotland in which Burns lived was a country in transition, sometimes in contradiction, on several fronts. The political scene was in flux, the result of the 1603 and 1707 unions which had stripped Scotland of its autonomy and finally all but muzzled the Scottish voice, as decisions and directives issued from London rather than from Edinburgh. A sense of loss led to questions and sometimes to actions, as in the Jacobite rebellions early in the 18th century. Was there a national identity? Should aspects of Scottish uniqueness be collected and enshrined? Should Scotland move ahead, adopting English manners, language, and cultural forms? No single answer was given to any of these questions. But change was afoot: Scots moved closer to an English norm, particularly as it was used by those in the professions, religion, and elite circles; “think in English, feel in Scots” seems to have been a widespread practice, which limited the communicative role, as well as the intelligibility, of Scots. For a time, however, remnants of the Scots dialect met with approbation among certain circles. A loose-knit movement to preserve evidences of Scottish culture embraced products that had the stamp of Scotland upon them, lauding Burns as a poet from the soil; assembling, editing, and collecting Scottish ballads and songs; sometimes accepting James Macpherson’s Ossianic offerings; and lauding poetic Jacobitism. This movement was both nationalistic and antiquarian, recognizing Scottish identity through the past and thereby implicitly accepting contemporary assimilation.

Scotland’s upheavals were in many ways Burns’s upheavals as well: he embraced cultural nationalism to celebrate Scotland in poem and song; he struggled as a tenant farmer without the requisite capital and know-how in the age of “improvement”; he combined the oral world of his childhood and region with the education his father arranged through an “adventure school”; he accepted, but resented, the moral judgments of the Kirk against himself and friends such as Gavin Hamilton; he knew the religious controversies which pitted moderate against conservative on matters of church control and belief; he reveled in traditional culture’s balladry, song, proverbs, and customs. He was a man of his time, and his success as poet, songwriter, and human being owes much to the way he responded to the world around him. Some have called him the typical Scot, Everyman.

Burns began his career as a local poet writing for a local, known audience to whom he looked for immediate response, as do all artists in a traditional context. He wrote on topics of appeal both to himself and to his artistic constituency, often in a wonderfully appealing conversational style. Burns’s early life was spent in the southwest of Scotland, where his father worked as an estate gardener in Alloway, near Ayr. Subsequently William Burnes leased successively two farms in the region, Mount Oliphant nearby and Lochlie near Tarbolton. Between 1765 and 1768 Burns attended an “adventure” school established by his father and several neighbors with John Murdock as teacher, and in 1775 he attended a mathematics school in Kirkoswald. These formal and more or less institutionalized bouts of education were extended at home under the tutelage of his father. Burns was identified as odd because he always carried a book; a countrywoman in Dunscore, who had seen Burns riding slowly among the hills reading, once remarked, “That’s surely no a good man, for he has aye a book in his hand!” The woman no doubt assumed an oral norm, the medium of traditional culture.

His father had married late and was thus older than many men with a household of children; he was also less physically resilient and less able to endure the tenant farmer’s lot. Bad seed and rising rents at various times spelled failure to his ventures. At the time of his approaching death and a disastrous end to the Lochlie lease, Burns and his brother secretly leased Mossgiel Farm near Mauchline. Burns was 25. The death of his father, the family’s patriarchal force for constraint in religion, education, and morality, freed Burns. He quickly became recognized as a rhymer, sometimes signing himself after the farm as Rab Mossgiel. The midwife’s prophecy at his birth—that he would be much attracted to the lasses—became a reality; in 1785 he fathered a daughter by Betty Paton, and in 1786 had twins by Jean Armour. His fornications and his thoughts about the Kirk, made public, opened him to church censure, which he bore but little accepted. It was almost as though the floodgates had burst: his poetic output between 1784 and 1786 includes many of those works on which his reputation stands—epistles, satires, manners-painting, and songs—many of which he circulated in the manner of the times: in manuscript or by reading aloud. Many works of this period, judiciously chosen to appeal to a wider audience, appeared in the first formal publication of his work, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, printed in Kilmarnock in 1786 and paid for by subscriptions.

Burns’s first and last works were songs, reflecting his deep connection with oral ballad and song. The world of custom and belief is most particularly described in “Halloween,” an ethnographic poem with footnotes elucidating rural customs. Many forms of prognostication are possible on this evening when this world and the other world or worlds hold converse, a time when unusual things are deemed possible—especially foretelling one’s future mate and status. Burns’s notes and prefatory material have often been used as evidence of his distance from and perhaps disdain for such practices. Yet the poem itself is peopled with a sympathetic cast of youths, chaperoned by an old woman, joined together for fun and fellowship. The youthful players try several prognosticatory rites in attempting to anticipate their future love relationships. Burns worked out in poetry some of his responses to his own culture by showing opposing views of how life should be lived. Descriptions of his own experiences stimulated musings on constraint and freedom. Critical tradition says that John Richmond and Burns observed the beggars in Poosie Nansie’s “The Holy Fair” may be based on the Mauchline Annual Communion, which was held on the second Sunday of August in 1785; the gathering of the cotter’s family may not describe a specific event but certainly depicts a generalized and typical picture. Thus Burns’s own experiences became the base from which he responded to and considered larger cultural and human issues.

The Kilmarnock edition changed Burns’s life: it sprang him away for a year and a half from the grind of agricultural routine, and it made him a public figure. Burns arrived in the capital city in the heyday of cultural nationalism, and his own person and works were hailed as evidences of a Scottish culture: the Scotsman as a peasant, close to the soil, possessing the “soul” of nature; the works as products of that peasant, in Scots, containing echoes of earlier written and oral Scottish literature.

Burns used this time for a variety of experiments, trying on several roles. He entered into what seems to have been a platonic dalliance with a woman of some social standing, Agnes McLehose, who was herself in an ambiguous social situation—her husband having been in Jamaica for some time. The relationship, whatever its true nature, stimulated a correspondence, in which Burns and Mrs. McLehose styled themselves Sylvander and Clarinda and wrote predictably elevated, formulaic, and seemingly insincere letters. Burns lacks conviction in this role; but he met more congenial persons: boon companions, males whom he joined in back-street howffs for lively talk, song, and bawdry.

Burns, then, has not only used a legend and provided a setting in which legends might be told but has replicated poetically aspects of a verbal recounting of a legend. And he has used a traditional form to celebrate Scotland’s cultural past. “Tam o’ Shanter” may be seen as Burns’s most mature and complex celebration of Scottish cultural artifacts. If there were a shift of emphasis and attitude toward traditional culture as a result of the Edinburgh experience, there was also continuity. Early and late Burns was a rhymer, a versifier, a local poet using traditional forms and themes in occasional and sometimes extemporaneous productions. These works are seldom noteworthy and are sometimes biting and satiric. He called them “little trifles” and frequently wrote them to “pay a debt.” These pieces were not thought of as equal to his more deliberate endeavors; they were play, increasingly expected of him as a poet. He probably would have disavowed many now attributed to him, particularly some of the mean-spirited epigrams. Several occasional pieces, however, deserve a closer look for their ability to raise the commonplace to altogether different heights.

The many songs, the masterpiece “Tam o’ Shanter,” and the continuation and profusion of ephemeral occasional pieces of varying merit all stand as testimony to Burns’s artistry after Edinburgh, albeit an artistry dominated by a selective, focused celebration of Scottish culture in song and legend. This narrowing of focus and direction of creativity suited his changed situation. Burns left Edinburgh in 1788 for Ellisland Farm, near Dumfries, to take up farming again; on August 5 he legally wed Jean Armour, with whom he had seven more children. For the first time in his life he had to become respectable and dependable. Suddenly the carefree life of a bachelor about town ended (although he still sired a daughter in 1791 by a woman named Anne Park), and the trials of life, sanitized in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” became a reality. A year later he also began to work for the Excise; by the fall of 1791 he had completely left farming for excise work and had moved to Dumfries. “The De’il’s awa wi’ th’ Exciseman,” probably written for Burns’s fellow excise workers and shared with them at a dinner, is a felicitous union of text and tune, lively, rollicking, and affecting. The text plays on the negative view of tax collecting, delighting that the de’il—that couthie bad guy, not Milton’s Satan—has rid the country of the blight. He was a hard life, perhaps made both better and worse by his fame. His art catapulted him out of the routine and uncertainty of the agricultural world and gave him more options than most people of his background, enabling him to be trained for the Excise. His renown gave him access to persons and places he might otherwise not have known. He seems to have felt thoroughly at home in all-male society, whether formal, as in the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club and Crochallan Fencibles, or informal. The male sharing of bawdy song and story cut across class lines. Depicting women as objects, filled with sexual metaphors, bragging about sexual exploits, such bawdy material was a widespread and dynamic part of Scottish traditional culture. Because the sharing of the bawdy material was covert and largely oral, it is impossible to sort out definitively Burns’s role in such works as the posthumously published and attributed volume, The Merry Muses of Caledonia. Burns the man became central because he was at one and the same time typical and atypical—a struggling tenant farmer become tax collector and poet. If he could transcend his birth-right, achieving recognition in his lifetime and posthumous fame thereafter, so might any Scot. Thus Burns became a symbol of every person’s potentiality and even of Scotland’s future as an independent country. To many, Burns became a hero; almost immediately after his death a process of traditionalizing his life began. People told one another about their personal experiences with him; repeated tellings formed a loose-knit legendary cycle which emphasizes his way with women, his impromptu poetic abilities, and his innate humanity. Many apocryphal accounts found their way into early works of criticism. But the legendary tradition has had a particularly dynamic life in a “calendar custom” called the Burns Supper.

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